A Fraudulent Atoll Wins Honorable Mention in 2017 LA+ IMAGINATION Design Ideas Competition

7° N 172° E: A fictitious island within the boundary waters of the Marshall Islands, fabricated by floating mats woven from plastic and metal waste, and conceived as a franchise fraud scheme by a con man.

A Fraudulent Atoll, a collaborative design by Assistant Professor Jacob Boswell and Assistant Professor of Practice Justin Parscher, received an honorable mention in the 2017 LA+ IMAGINATION Design Ideas Competition. Sponsored by The University of Pennsylvania’s LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus) journal, the competition asked landscape architects, architects and artists to design a new island – with any program, form or purpose. The only rule: the island could not be bigger than one square kilometer. The competition attracted 180 entries from 33 countries.

We spoke to the two landscape architecture professors about the competition, their collaboration and the place islands hold in contemporary design culture. Their entry will be published in full in the Spring 2018 issue of LA+.

As a form defined by otherness and isolation, how do islands figure in the landscape architect’s (or your own) imagination?

Parscher: Researching this entry, what struck me is that global systems of ecology and communication have made the idea of a true island a little impossible. Places like the Marshall Islands deal with the same problems as anyone else (waste disposal, scammers), but the physical configuration they work with means that the same solutions are not available.

Boswell: I agree, but would add that, though islands like the Marshalls don’t have the physical resources that larger nations do, they do have a lot of interesting legal wiggle room in how they define their boundaries. Right now you’re seeing China exploit that wiggle room in their creation of manmade islands in the Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea. Because the U.N. Conventions on the Laws of the Sea define a nation’s ocean territory (national waters) with reference to its coast (an inherently shifty line – particularly in light of global sea level rise) powerful nations are challenging long-held territorial boundaries by literally manufacturing new land in order to lay claim to resources and to control trade. Here we are kind of inverting that. We have the little Marshall Islands creatively using this problem they have with waste (caused by larger nations) to flip the table and make a claim for extending their own territory.

Did your island plan originate from a personal experience: visit, novel, movie, etc.?

Parscher: Not for me. I think I am interested in Micronesia in part because it does not seem to have much of a place in the imagination of the United States.

Boswell: I’m just the opposite. I’m interested in Micronesia because of the place it has in the imagination of the United States. Micronesia – and maybe particularly the Marshalls – are this completely alien space for us. This is where both Godzilla and King Kong come from. It’s a place where the U.S. felt comfortable removing indigenous inhabitants in order to test hydrogen bombs between 1947 and 1962.

A project that really influenced my thinking on this was Joie Chan’s (MLA ’17) directed research project on arctic imaginaries. I was her advisor for the project, and much of my thinking on coastal boundaries can be traced to her work looking at Canada’s historic and contemporary claims to the Arctic Ocean.

The competition guidelines provided loose boundaries for the island design. How did this allowance of a broad interpretation influence your collaborative (creative) process?

Parscher: It certainly gave us plenty of elbow room - the island did not even have to be surrounded by water! Usually, it is more helpful to have a prompt that focuses your notions more narrowly, but in this case it let us follow through on a mutual interest in design fictions.

Boswell: The openness definitely made it harder. Justin and I tend to think about these things through a series of long, rambling talks that, at the last minute, materialize into a more narrowly defined project. I think we approach projects in this very open and curious way, so to not have any constraints was challenging, but rewarding in the end. Justin had to talk me back into this project a couple of times.